by Michael Pearson

Saturday’s clash between Napoli and Milan evokes memories of a nostalgic rivalry from the past.

In the late 80’s the competition between Milan and Napoli was both fierce and fascinating.

Titles were won and lost amid wonderful football, controversies and conspiracies.

At the time, Italy was a broken and fragmented country. The North and South were divided.

The industrial North had become affluent, but the South remained ‘traditional.’

Northeners viewed Southerners as ‘backward and ungovernable’;

Southerners felt humiliation at the hands of Northerners, who they believe, took away far more than they gave back.

The cultural rift was also mirrored on the football field.

For decades, ‘Northern’ teams from Milan and Turin monopolised the Seria A championship, while lowly ‘Southern’ Napoli meandered around in mediocrity.

Napoli fans were also frequently mocked by visiting away supporters – with chants of ‘Lavatevi, Lavatevi’ – “wash yourselves!”

One man changed Naples’ identity. Diego Armando Maradona. The most technically gifted player in the World arrived at Napoli in 1984. 80,000 Neapolitans flocked to his official unveiling; chanting- in a passionate almost religious echo- ‘‘Diego take charge! If it doesn’t happen now it never will’’

Diego, of course, delivered. He guided Napoli to their 1st Italian Championship in 1986-87.

They revelled in beating ‘Northerners’ Juventus to the crown.

“I consider myself a son of Naples.” He declared, moments after the triumph. He certainly was.

With 10 goals in 29 games, and numerous assists, Maradona came to represent the chaos and beauty of Naples, standing against the relentless dominance of the North.

However, that dominance would immediately come under threat – the very next season- from another giant club from the North.

AC Milan boasted of their own squad of superstars to rival Maradona.

The Dutch trio; Rijkaard, Gullitt and Van Basten – added to an already impressive defence that included Baresi, Maldini and Costacurta -transformed Milan into title contenders.

However, Napoli looked like retaining the Scudetto. The champions and leaders were four points clear of Milan with five games to go.

In an era of two points for a win, this was a significant advantage. Especially as they had lost only twice all season and led the Campionato since the opening day.

Then, apparently inexplicably, Napoli collapsed.  They managed to win just one point from their last five games -which included a thrilling 2-3 home reverse to Milan- and incredibly the title went North to ‘The Rossoneri’.

Sadly, the true reason for Napoli’s capitulation was deeply disturbing.

It is now common knowledge throughout Italy that Napoli threw away the 1987-88 Scudetto at the request of the Mafia (Camorra).

Underground or ‘black betting’ (totonero) run by the mafia was massive in Italy at the time.

So many Neapolitans had bet on a title victory that the Camorra stood to lose hundreds of billions.

As Napoli won their seventh victory on the trot at the end of February, the Camorra started issuing out warnings to their players.

Maradona’s car was smashed up, Salvatore Bagni was beaten and had his car stolen.

Eventually, the rest of the squad were given offers they couldn’t refuse – including threats that their dead relatives’ bodies would be dug up and stolen!

Two years later it was time for Milan supporters to complain.

Going into the penultimate game of the 1989-90 season, both sides were level on 47 points.

Milan were expected to easily beat second-from-bottom Verona, but they fell to a shock 2-1 defeat

The refereeing in this game was scandalous. Three Milan players – Rijkaard, Van Basten and Costacurta – were all red carded. Verona’s winner was clearly offside. Coach Sacchi was also sent from the touchline, for disputing the failure to award a stone-wall Van Basten penalty.

Napoli had won back their crown, but Paolo Maldini has since described this match as the most controversial of his career.

Fans of both clubs still lament the corruption and sinister scandals. But (more importantly) the sensational football of that era -played by the world’s greatest players – will never be tarnished or forgotten.